“Good fences make good neighbors.”
Much is written about a potential conflict between China and Russia. The Amur River, which for a thousand miles forms part of the 2300 mile border between China and Russia, is a mere line in the sand, and certainly no wall. It is crossed every day, with and without the benefit of bridges or visas. The threat to Russia from its southern neighbor is obvious: China has 1.3 billion people and rising, but little oil; Russia has about twice the space, a shrinking population of around 143 million people, and lots of oil.
I will never forget the prediction of Dr. William Lytle Schurz at Thunderbird School of Global Management, who said at the height of the Cold War, just five years after Stalin’s death: “Not in my lifetime, but perhaps in yours, America will be allied with Russia—against China.” That does not have to happen of course. There is absolutely no lasting benefit of a conflict between Russia and China. But the absence of mutual advantage has never stopped a war.
Today, I find more and more Russians are learning Chinese, for good reason, so the conflict is more likely to be one of economic competition and cooperation. To provide some kind on interdependence, I read that a pipeline is planned to transport oil from the Russian Far East to China, and even to India. It will bring the countries closer. The rise of immigrant Chinese workers in the mines, fields, and cities of the Russian Far East is no secret. Russian men refuse to do the work, alcohol contributing to the malaise, or they move west to the cities to find better conditions.
Indeed, economic cooperation and trade should help build a bridge between the two countries. This is happening now. Trade turnover between Russia and China doubled to $60 billion in 2010 according to The Economic Times. Russian-Chinese relations have been gradually improving according to Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, who predicted good prospects for cooperation in the energy sphere, including nuclear energy, as well as in the military and technical, and hi-tech spheres. There are many strategic reasons why the two neighbors should develop strong and mutually beneficial relations.
But, there is a deeper reason for the uncertainty over Russia and China. It is cultural. I will never forget a talk in a small town in New England by a woman from Boston’s China Town. It was the height of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward. She said “not to worry” and stressed that, in spite of Mao’s forced centralization, the main foundation of Chinese society was and always will be the family. I have worked in China and I know that to be true. And the reports today reinforce that deep societal fact. Despite their short term mutual Communist history, the Chinese have always seen their past and future in the long view of generations, where the Russian, congenitally unsure of tomorrow, wants his reward today. So indeed, the Russian may have to balance two games at the same time, one with China because it threatens with no good fence between them, and the other with the United States, because it is serves as a balance on their side of the equation.
I will never forget a conversation I once had with Russian businessmen from Barnaul, a prominent city in the Russian Far East. They had come all the way to Minsk to meet U.S. businessmen. I asked why they didn’t look for cooperation with the Chinese and South Koreans, much closer than Moscow, and certainly the United States. Their answer was a surprise, but an unforgettable one. “They don’t look like us,” they said.
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.